Local factors in females' choices

Population, Gender and Politics
May 8, 1998

The widespread consensus in support of female schooling as a means to empower women and thus to reduce fertility and limit population growth - as epitomised by the conclusions of the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development - can be seen, according to this book, to arise from an uneasy coincidence of interests between feminists and exponents of population control.

We should be wary, however, of assuming either that female schooling is sufficient for empowerment or that empowerment of women is sufficient to ensure fertility decline. A detailed study of childbirth patterns in two communities of rural Uttar Pradesh, the Hindu Jats of Nangal and the Muslim Sheikhs of Qaziwala, leads the authors to stress the importance of wider considerations of political economy in determining fertility rates.

These two communities, both of them dominant caste groups in their own villages, vary substantially in fertility, with rates more than one child per woman greater in the Sheikh community. The adequacy of several explanations for the gap are explored through comparisons between households within communities. Class gradients in fertility rates appear to exist; but the authors argue that these are unable to explain differences between the groups, and in neither group did interviewees point to any economic rationale for large families. The authors consider indicators of scope for female autonomy such as distance from birth kin or domestic arrangements, but no clear evidence emerges that easier access to parents or separation of household from husband's mother leads to reduced fertility. Better schooled women have lower child mortality, lower fertility and are more likely to use contraception, but there is weak evidence for the strength of these effects.

Schooling, furthermore, apparently has little influence on autonomy in other dimensions. "If I were more educated I would still have to cook roti (bread)", one woman points out. Without more thorough-going emancipation, the book suggests that neither living arrangements nor education will improve women's agency to any substantial extent in these communities.

The authors are more convinced by explanations for fertility differences that place weight on the differing uncertainties faced by the communities as a whole over mortality, income and political security. Women are similarly subordinated in both castes; but the Jats, unlike the Sheikhs, have the economic and political security to practise family limitation as a means to enhance their economic position. On the other hand, a "pervasive sense of personal and collective insecurity" drives the Sheikh community towards the insurance offered by continuing high fertility.

These conclusions need to be read with an awareness of the narrowness of the particular rural north Indian context and of the limited sample size even within that context. Communal tension and Muslim poverty levels are both greater in rural Uttar Pradesh than elsewhere in India. Nonetheless, the authors succeed in raising important issues in a thought-provoking way.

Relatively unconvinced by the threat posed by population growth, they emphasise the importance of genuine empowerment of women as a goal in its own right.

Vandana Desai is lecturer in geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Population, Gender and Politics: Demographic Change in Rural North India

Author - Roger Jeffery and Patricia Jeffery
ISBN - 0 521 46116 2 and 46653 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50 and £16.95
Pages - 8

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